Is funding the least of FAA’s problems with NextGen?

 - July 2, 2007, 9:19 AM

Since everyone agrees that rapidly increasing traffic volumes over the next 20 years will demand the FAA’s NextGen solution–or something very similar–it came as a surprise to hear a recognized authority ask whether there actually will be such a system. This is the almost unthinkable question that Neil Planzer, Boeing Phantom Works v-p for strategy and advanced air traffic management, posed at an Atlantic City, N.J. technical symposium in May hosted by the FAA, NASA and the Air Traffic Control Association.

Planzer, who spent 25 years with the FAA, some of them as director of its air traffic program requirements and its air traffic systems requirements service, was not saying there should not be such a system. Instead he was questioning whether the current processes within the FAA’s Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) to define and implement NextGen are up to the task. Planzer is not alone in holding this view.

It’s a view that has been expressed, almost equally forcefully, by the DOT Inspector General (IG), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the chairman of Rockwell Collins, to name three heavyweights.

Planzer explained, “The time to act is now. The confluence of change and technology exists today, and demand is already outpacing growth. NextGen will be the most important change in aviation in the last 50 years; if it fails we relegate the economy and the nation to a painful transportation system that will haunt us for generations.”
In February, the DOT’s IG reported that NextGen was “an extraordinarily complex and high-risk effort given the potential multibillion-dollar investments by the FAA and airspace users,” and went on to stress the need to clearly define “the expected benefits [the IG’s emphasis] from the NextGen initiatives.”

Underlying this concern was the fact that NASA, which traditionally had provided the bulk of the long-term research and development behind the FAA’s ATC systems, announced late last year that in the future it would be cutting back on this work and concentrating on “fundamental research,” leaving its further development into operational applications to the FAA.

“If NASA is unable to provide projects at a level that the FAA can transition to prototypes,” noted the IG’s report, “the JPDO and FAA will have to determine how this R&D will be completed, managed and paid for.”

In May, the GAO expanded on this theme in testimony to the House subcommittee on aviation, stating, “Neither the JPDO nor the FAA currently has sufficient resources to prototype, validate and certify new technologies, and neither agency can currently develop the technologies internally without causing significant delays in the implementation of NextGen.” The GAO stated that this task would cost at least $100 million.

The IG and GAO were also concerned about the lack of air traffic controller and service technician representation in the JPDO’s nine working groups studying separate NextGen requirements. Lack of controller and technician involvement in past major FAA projects, such as the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (Stars), created significant delays and overspending, they reported.

But the GAO testimony raised a new and disturbing issue regarding the industry representatives already active in the working groups. These working-group members volunteer their part-time services to the JPDO to provide technical expertise to their similarly part time, but usually less well informed, government counterparts.

It turns out that an FAA procurement regulation precludes contractors “from competing on production contracts if the contractor either participated in or materially influenced the drafting of specifications…or had advance knowledge of the requirements.” This Catch-22 legislation has alarmed industry firms, which feel that their free provision of expertise to the JPDO could disqualify them from bidding on the systems in which they specialize.

Industry sources told AIN that while FAA lawyers are trying to find a way around this, company employees are being instructed to listen, but not speak, at working-group meetings. But this is clearly undesirable, particularly for the JPDO, which depends on results from working groups composed primarily of part-time members from industry and from participating agencies such as NASA and the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, none of which has a direct reporting responsibility to the FAA.

Industry comment about the JPDO has been generally constrained, with one exception. Rockwell Collins chairman, president and CEO Clay Jones hasn’t minced words. After reviewing the history of ATC before a technical symposium in Washington in March, he said, “Today, NextGen is our latest and greatest hope. But while hope springs eternal, who among us is ready to bet the ranch that NextGen is going to happen, or even be known as that a few years from now?” He added, “If you will excuse my cynicism, I fear that what appeared to be a promising and accelerated process, involving the stakeholders and industry, is becoming another activity mired in process and hindered by bureaucracy.”

At the May technical symposium, Jones criticized the JPDO for planning to publish the NextGen System Architecture–essentially, its implementation blueprint–before the user community has reviewed and commented on the NextGen Operations Concept document, which is still in draft.

Let Industry Take the Reins
Then he pointed out that innovative industrial and government projects, from privatized toll roads and other major infrastructure initiatives through the FAA’s upcoming–and precedent setting–industry-financed ADS-B network, have met much success and he wondered why the same strategy is not applied to NextGen. He asked, “Why not take the next step and let industry do what it does best? Why not seriously explore the formation of an industry consortium to develop the plans for construction and financing of the Next Generation Air Transportation System?”

In subsequent, off-the-record discussions with AIN, industry and FAA personnel revealed a strong level of agreement with Planzer’s and Jones’s views, with one frequent qualifier. Following the GAO testimony before the House subcommittee in May, senior representatives were reported to have already expressed concerns about the FAA “losing control” of its forthcoming ADS-B program to industry. Perhaps one shouldn’t bet the ranch, yet.